Jack’s Top Films (Through the Years)
For nearly 19 years, I’ve had the great privilege of serving as Austin Family’s film columnist. As I move forward with other endeavors, I’m sad to say that this month’s column will be my last. I will truly miss contributing to this publication, and I’d like to thank Kaye, Jess and all of the amazing editors I’ve had the opportunity to work with, as well as our loyal Austin Family readers.
Reflecting upon my wonderful time spent here, I’ve rounded up a handful of favorite movies I’ve reviewed for the magazine over the years, ranging from my first year (2004) to just last year. I hope you enjoy!
The Aviator (2004)
Martin Scorsese’s criminally underrated biopic of aviation pioneer and Hollywood producer Howard Hughes (Leonardo DiCaprio) is one of the most entertaining and visually striking movies of the last twenty years. It was also a touchstone for me as a teenager in its uncompromising look at obsessive-compulsive disorder – something that spoke deeply to my 14-year-old self. Of all the movies I reviewed near the beginning of my Austin Family tenure, “The Aviator” was the most personally affecting. The film is available to stream on Amazon Prime and Paramount Plus, and I’d recommend it for ages eleven and above.
Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)
Director Wes Anderson, who has perhaps the most recognizable visual style of any modern filmmaker, had never made an animated movie before “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” but the general consensus upon the film’s release was that Anderson’s aesthetic was in perfect harmony with the exactitude and precision of stop-motion animation. And yet somehow “Fantastic Mr. Fox” also feels completely improvised at times – the humor is so idiosyncratic and unexpected, particularly for a children’s movie, that it gives the whole film a sense of unpredictability. Anderson would go on to make another excellent stop-motion film, “Isle of Dogs” (2018), but “Fantastic Mr. Fox” remains one of his best movies – and perhaps the strongest adaptation of any of Roald Dahl’s stories for the big screen. The film is available to stream on HBO Max, and I’d recommend it for ages five and above.
Toy Story 3 (2010)
Sequels to hit Pixar movies grew a little wearisome during the 2010s (I don’t think there’s anyone who would count “Finding Dory” or “Monsters University” among the animation studio’s best offerings) – but “Toy Story 3” stands apart as an essential, complex and emotionally potent piece of filmmaking. It’s the rare sequel to be every bit as good as (if not better than) the original movie. The film is available to stream on Disney Plus, and I’d recommend it for ages four and above.
The Tree of Life (2011)
Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” is a film that defies any easy categorization. Watching the movie on opening night in Austin with a packed audience (many of whom worked in some capacity on the film, which was shot in Smithville), was not unlike taking in the grand spectacle of “The Lion King” on Broadway for the first time as a young child. It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience.
The story concerns Jack, an eleven-year-old boy raised in Texas in the 1950s, whose wondrous and carefree childhood slowly gives way to a more troubling, complicated understanding of human nature as he loses his innocence. As he grows into a disillusioned adult (Sean Penn), he struggles to come to terms with the two ways through life: the way of human nature, fierce will and determination, epitomized by his father (Brad Pitt, in a hauntingly understated performance), and the way of love, compassion and grace, epitomized by his mother (Jessica Chastain).
The film is available to rent on Amazon, and I would recommend it for ages twelve and above.
Martin Scorsese’s “Hugo” remains one of my favorite films of the last twenty years. Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), a young boy living in the walls of a Parisian train station in the 1930s, discovers that an automaton left for him by his recently deceased father (Jude Law) may unlock the mystery behind George Méliès (Ben Kingsley), an unhappy elderly man who owns a toy shop in the train station. What Hugo and his newfound friend Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz), Méliès’ goddaughter, gradually discover is that Méliès is one of the original pioneers of cinema, the director of over five hundred pictures and a revolutionary filmmaker. However, most of his films are believed to have been destroyed and melted at the rise of World War I – but Hugo, determined to lift Méliès’ spirit, sets out to restore the filmmaker’s work.
To say that “Hugo” is the finest use of 3D technology that I’ve ever seen doesn’t do justice to what Scorsese and cinematographer Robert Richardson achieved with this picture. I don’t particularly like 3D, and yet the visual bravura of “Hugo” convinced me that, when utilized by a master filmmaker and treated as an artistic device, it is a major cinematic innovation. The film is available to stream on Showtime, and I’d recommend it for ages six and above.
Inside Out (2015)
Pete Docter’s “Inside Out” remains the last great film from Pixar Animation to date. The movie takes place inside the mind of eleven-year-old Riley, and our primary characters are Riley’s five dominant emotions – Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust. As Riley enters a new period of uncertainty, her emotions are thrown into chaos. “Inside Out” is the kind of movie you wish was made more often for kids – equal parts entertaining and a noble attempt to help young viewers understand their complex emotions (Pixar has attempted this again a few times since “Inside Out,” but they forgot to make the subsequent movies any fun to watch). “Inside Out” also gifted us with the character of Bing Bong (Richard Kind), and no, I’m not embarrassed to admit I own a Bing Bong action figure.
“Inside Out” is available to stream on Disney Plus, and I’d recommend it for ages three and above.
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Writer, director and actor Taika Waititi has blazed a trail of original filmmaking over the last ten years, yielding such idiosyncratic and hilarious films as Hunt for the “Wilderpeople” (2016) and “What We Do in the Shadows” (2014). Shortly after the success of those films, Marvel hired him to infuse some liveliness into “Thor: Ragnarok” (2017). With “Jojo Rabbit,” Waititi thankfully returned to making his own unique creations – and won a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar as a reward.
“Jojo Rabbit” focuses on a young boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis), growing up in Nazi Germany. Jojo’s peers frequently pick on him, and, after an accident at Nazi boot camp involving a grenade, he’s left alone much of the time with his imaginary friend, Adolf. Yes, it’s that Adolf – but as conceptualized by a twelve-year-old boy and played by Waititi, who is Jewish.
The premise is so fascinatingly bizarre that the film immediately demands your attention, and luckily, Waititi has a lot on his mind here. By telling the story from the perspective of a child, the filmmaker illustrates how a young person can grow up in a hateful environment and simply not know anything beyond his limited worldview. It’s a useful tool for empathy – nobody thinks they’re growing up in a place like Nazi Germany if that’s all they’ve ever known. A film like “Jojo Rabbit” takes a very skilled director to pull off tonally, and Waititi masterfully finds a balance between uneasy comedy and deeply felt human drama. There’s nothing funny about Nazism, but there is significant power in watching a child’s vision of his hero crumble before his eyes, giving way to a deeper and more compassionate understanding of the world.
“Jojo Rabbit” is available to rent on Amazon, and I’d recommend it for ages ten and above.
The Fabelmans (2022)
Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” is a wonderful ode to the joy and pain of making movies, a thoughtful and moving recollection of youth by one of cinema’s greatest storytellers, and, above all, an immensely entertaining motion picture. “The Fabelmans” also offers us the genesis of the broken family theme that’s present in so many of Spielberg’s indelible films.
Spielberg is careful to show such empathy for the characters based on his parents (played by Michelle Williams and Paul Dano) during the slow dissolution of their marriage. There are no bad people in this movie, only flawed individuals trying to navigate an uncertain world. And as our protagonist is tasked with directly facing an uncomfortable family secret through film, Spielberg is able to beautifully articulate how making films about one’s personal story can be quite painful and revealing – while making movies of more fantastical genres not mined from personal experience (westerns, war pictures) can be exhilarating and much more fun.
There’s a deliberate parallel here to Spielberg’s own filmography, in which his brilliance at making escapist entertainment in the early part of his career (think “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “E.T.”) eventually gave way to the filmmaker tackling weightier, sometimes quite personal subjects (namely, depictions of the Jewish experience in films like “Schindler’s List” and “Munich”). It’s taken Spielberg 75 years to finally edit together his own home movie, and it was worth the wait.
The film is available to stream on Showtime, and I’d recommend it for ages eleven and above.
Publisher’s Note: Thank you, Jack, for 19 wonderful years. You began your reviews with us as a high school student, on through college graduation, and are now a successful professional. We wish you the best of luck.